Taking Up the Cross

 

Luke tells us that “large crowds were traveling with Jesus.” Doesn’t that sound hopeful, and a great way to describe the goal of our lives ~ to ‘travel with Jesus?’ Yet, turning to the crowds, Jesus says this: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate [family] and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Paying attention to these words we can notice something important, but something that we might otherwise overlook. It is this ~ that traveling with Jesus is not necessarily the same thing as following him. Jesus’ strong words are coupled with others that are equally off-putting. For he says that “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” In other words, on our best days we may wonder about which of our things we might be willing to give up. Yet, Jesus tells us that we must give up everything! What are we to do with these starkly uncompromising words?

Our temptation when considering Jesus’ strong words is to take them figuratively, or to blunt them by abstraction. Yet, it’s helpful to remember something that St. Anthony of Egypt perceived, centuries ago, about those who came to join him where he lived in a desert cave. Observing the newcomers, he came to realize that those who manage to give up their possessions don’t always give up their attachment to them. So, as Anthony came to see, it’s not possessions that are our problem, but our attachment to them.

This insight, found in the spirituality of both the East and the West, involves the spiritual practice of non-attachment. It can help us deal with Jesus’ hard sayings about family, possessions and our vocation. A spiritual writer, John Shea, offers a helpful understanding of Jesus’ words here. He observes that “possessions are whatever we hold onto that competes with our communion with Jesus and {our} cooperation with his mission. They are substitute absolutes.” In speaking about more than just physical things, Shea says that “an essential step of discipleship is selling what we have that keeps us from integrating the mind and actions of Christ into our minds and actions.”

Here, taking note of Eugene Peterson’s translation of our Gospel may be helpful. This is how Peterson renders Jesus’ words: “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.” Jesus is not urging us to engage in the counter-intuitive emotion of hate. Instead, he wants us to recognize how two objects of our affection can compete, and compete in such a way that one blots out the other. For it is possible for us to love our families and our present lives in such a way, and to such an extent, that these loves impede our ability to follow the Lord.

To follow Jesus is to be willing to shoulder the cross.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Simon the Cyrenian Compelled to Carry the Cross with Jesus. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 8, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

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